What if more people, early on, had listened to Dr. Li Wenliang, aka the Wuhan whistleblower? Wenliang was the Chinese doctor who warned other physicians at Wuhan Central to take protective measures and to be on alert. Instead of being thanked, he was reprimanded by Chinese police and forced to sign a letter acknowledging that he “made false comments.” This is but the latest, and perhaps most extreme, example of potentially lifesaving information being stifled by those who silence whistleblowers.
We can’t turn back the clock, but looking forward, we can help ensure that a U.S.-based Dr. Wenliang is encouraged to speak out and share such potentially life-saving information.
Congress recently passed a fiscal stimulus bill that will put $2 trillion into mitigating the public health crisis and economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis. It seems hard to overstate the importance of spending these funds effectively, yet this spending will happen quickly, with little time for vetting the multi-billion-dollar contracts and grants that are awarded.
Experience with disaster relief and other emergency funding suggests that when large sums of money are moved in response to an emergency, there is heightened risk of fraud and abuse. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an FBI anti-fraud task force brought charges against over 900 people who allegedly stole millions of dollars targeted for relief efforts. At the time, New Orleans-based Special Agent in Charge David Welker said “public corruption and government fraud cases increased 243 percent during 2006-2008 compared with the years before Katrina, 2003-2005.”
Fast forward to today’s pandemic, where we’re hearing a number of alarming and deeply troubling reports. In one case, a federal whistleblower spoke out about public health workers who came in contact with quarantined individuals without appropriate protective gear. The workers didn’t go into quarantine themselves but kept circulating in public. The whistleblower reportedly faced retaliation for reporting their concerns.
With the stakes this high, Congress must include in their spending packages key anti-corruption measures that prevent special interests from diverting funds, keep contractors honest and police outright theft by bad actors who pose as legitimate recipients of funds. Simply put, strengthening the U.S.’s current patchwork of whistleblower protections would save lives.
Provisions to empower inspectors general and limit conflicts of interest are important measures that were rightfully included in the recent stimulus package. They are critically important, but ultimately insufficient.
Additional anticorruption measures would help to fill these gaps. First, Congress must extend and improve protections for whistleblowers to hold accountable anyone who would abuse the moment. Such provisions both should be included in any future response. Whistleblower protections to rein in fraud and abuse are directly related to safeguarding spending and, historically, have had support across the political spectrum. In the current congressional session, for example, an update to whistleblower laws, the Whistleblower Protection Reform Act of 2019, passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Current whistleblower protections come from a complex patchwork of federal and state statutes, where protections are largely based on where one works, not on the importance of the information one may hold to public health and safety. Gaps in these rules ultimately mean less security for would-be whistleblowers, and increased risk for the rest of us.
In our current moment, Congress should pass a new, comprehensive whistleblower protection law that provides robust, standardized protections to every American working directly with the impact of the coronavirus and to employees and other agents of every entity that receives significant federal funding under any congressional response package. These protections include prohibiting retaliation in any form, providing sufficient due process, and making clear that whistleblowers have the right to remain anonymous. And if their reports lead to convictions or recovered funds, whistleblowers should be properly compensated for the risks they take to their careers and their lives.
Finally, if a federal employee faces retaliation for blowing the whistle, they should know they will be protected. The current administrative body that adjudicates these cases, the Merit Systems Protection Board, has zero members and cannot function. At minimum, a quorum of members who are committed to the Board’s mission and purpose should be appointed as soon as possible. And because obtaining relief through the Board has become so notoriously difficult, whistleblowers should have the right to have their cases heard by a jury of their peers.
Until these and other gaps in whistleblower laws are filled, we’ll continue to lack the necessary safeguards that encourage and protect those who would risk their own safety and security to speak out.
Gary Kalman is the director of the U.S. Office of Transparency International.